It appears the two largest and most powerful Shi'ite factions (and their respective para-militaries) a squaring of for control of Basra, Iraq's third largest city. This dispute should not be confused either for the insurgency (which appears to have gone into remission) or the Sunni vs. Shi'ite fighting. This is Shi'ite against Shi'ite. On one side is the Da'wa Party (the party of PM Nuri al-Maliki), the ISCI (Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, formerly SCIRI, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq), and ISCI's paramilitary, the Badr Corp. On the other side is the Sadrists and their paramilitary, the Mahdi Army.
From American Footprints.
As predicted on this site repeatedly over the past couple of months, the aggressive anti-Sadrist actions of the ISCI/Dawa factions - in tandem with the US military - has led to the scuttling of the cease fire by Sadr. The US military, and its Iraqi allies (who are also Iran's primary allies) are playing a dangerous game, however, as a resumption of violence by the Sadrists could have widespread reverberations.
The purposes behind the continued targeting of the Sadrists are manifold. First, there has been an ongoing competition between the Sadrist current and the ISCI/Dawa factions for wealth, power and control of the Shiite political sphere. Against that backdrop, the looming October 1 regional elections have provided ISCI with an added sense of urgency: the Sadrist current is considerably more popular and stands to make a serious dent in ISCI's local political clout (ISCI is somewhat overrepresented locally due to the fact that the Sadrists boycotted the last round of regional elections in 2005).
That is why ISCI vetoed the most recent iteration of the regional elections law. It is likely that Cheney, on his most recent visit, promised US support for anti-Sadrist activities in return for ISCI's withdrawal of its objections. Along these lines, it is no accident that the strategically vital southern city of Basra is currently the site of the most concerted effort to purge the Sadrists. If ISCI can push the Sadrists out of Basra (the main port city, and transit hub of oil and other goods), losing ground in other Shiite localities would be less painful.
For the Bush administration, backing ISCI/Dawa is appealing for a few reasons. First, ISCI/Dawa are amenable to the US presence, whereas the Sadrist current is strongly opposed. So ensuring that ISCI maintains its political power is essential to the goals of maintaining permanent military bases and gaining preferential access to oil residing in the Shiite-dominated south. Ensuring the legitimacy of the democratic process is, apparently, not quite as important.
Second, the US could be attempting to drive a wedge between Iran and its strongest allies in Iraq (ISCI/Dawa) by providing robust support against those factions' main rival (the Sadrists). I remain highly dubious as to the prospects of such a gambit, however, and find it quite plausible that ISCI/Dawa would view us as friends of convenience - useful on a limited, contingent basis - without completely abandoning their Iranian allies. For the Bush administration, even preserving the chance to secure permanent bases and access to oil might take the sting out of failing to cut Iran out of the picture completely, though.
Fighting has died down, but there is little reason to think that this represents a long-term trend. Indeed, it's a good bet that fighting will resume quickly considering Maliki's deadline to the Sadrists.
One of the most ironic features of this conflict is that the US is fighting for the ISCI, which is closely allied with Iraq. For the life of me, I don't understand why back that group.
Because we couldn't justify fighting on behalf of Iranian stooges, the media almost never mentions these connections, but instead reminds us of Sadr's (considerably weaker) connections with Iran. The fact is that the Sadrists are more nationalistic than anything else, and the actions of the US in favor of their rivals mainly serves the interests of Iran. I cannot figure out why we would want to serve Iran's interests, since confronting Iran is supposed to be the center of Bush's foreign policy. Matt Yglesias makes a similar point while illustrating the picture in this issue, and what it means for the American war effort. To summarize: imperialism just doesn't pay.
The would-be imperial power has to back the "less popular local elements." The key thing is to find groups that are strong enough to hold on to power with external support, but too weak to come to be in a position to kick the ladder of external support away.
Yes, it seems stupid for American soldiers to be risking their lives for the sake of Iranian-backed Islamist parties' struggle against a nationalist Islamist party, but that's the perverse logic of the situation. If ISCI had more popularity and legitimacy, they wouldn't need us. And if they didn't need us, we wouldn't want them, just as we don't really want anything to do with the self-confident Sadrists. The only problem is ginning up domestic political support in the United States for the gambit. Hence we hear a lot about Iranian support for Sadrist elements or even al-Qaeda, and very little about Iranian support for their primary allies in Iraq -- allies who just happen to be our allies too.